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Oxytocin’s Benefits Can Backfire in the Wrong Context

In non-social contexts, administering intranasal oxytocin may have downsides.

Key points

  • Oxytocin isn't just a cuddly "love hormone." Therapeutic use of this neuropeptide has many benefits but can also trigger adverse reactions.
  • New research shows that intranasal oxytocin enhances a memory's vividness. However, in some contexts, it triggers a wave of negative memories.
  • If someone with depressive symptoms uses intranasal oxytocin when they're feeling isolated or unsupported, it promotes negative memory recall.
Sergey Cherviakov/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Cherviakov/Shutterstock

Oxytocin is commonly referred to as the "cuddle molecule" or "love hormone." It is widely associated with prosocial behaviors, emotional bonding, and building trust. Accumulating evidence suggests that the therapeutic use of intranasal oxytocin in specific clinical populations can reduce social deficits, promote openness to new experiences, and nourish a sense of connectedness.

However, this neuropeptide also has some downsides and a "dark side." Researchers have known for years that intranasal oxytocin isn't a wonder drug or panacea that helps everybody all the time; it causes adverse reactions in some situations and can fuel aggression.

Oxytocin's Positive Effects Aren't Universal

A few years ago, Concordia Univerisity researchers (Cardoso et al., 2014) investigated the effect of intranasal oxytocin on perceiving and understanding emotion. They found that a self-administered 24 IU dose of this neuropeptide enhanced people's perception of emotion on other people's faces. If someone had social deficits, this was beneficial. But intranasal oxytocin made some study participants hypersensitive.

In a January 2014 news release, lead author Christopher Cardoso discussed oxytocin-induced oversensitivity: "The potential social benefits of oxytocin in most people may be countered by unintended negative consequences, like being too sensitive to emotional cues in everyday life."

"For some, typical situations like dinner parties or job interviews can be a source of major social anxiety," Cardoso said. "Many psychologists initially thought that oxytocin could be an easy fix in overcoming these worries. Our study proves that the hormone ramps up innate social reasoning skills, resulting in an emotional oversensitivity that can be detrimental in those who don't have any serious social deficiencies."

Now, a new two-part study by Cardoso and his Concordia University colleagues unearths another context-dependent downside of intranasal oxytocin. This research focused on how social context modulates oxytocin's effect on autobiographical memory recall in study participants with and without symptoms of depression in social and non-social contexts. These findings (Wong et al., 2021) were recently published in the open-access journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Contextual Factors Influence How Oxytocin Affects Memory Recall

Oxytocin has the potential to provide benefits in specific controlled contexts, but it can promote negative memory recall if contextual factors don't involve social contact and emotional support.

For example, the researchers found that when intranasal oxytocin was administered in a positive and supportive social context, it enhanced the vividness of memory recall for people with and without depressive symptoms. However, when people with depressive symptoms took oxytocin while socially isolated and not feeling supported, it triggered an uptick in their recall of negative autobiographical memories.

"When it comes to oxytocin, context matters," first author Kelvin Wong said in a news release. "It is not a one-drug-fits-all situation. We need to be very careful about the context in which we administer oxytocin. [It] has the potential to greatly benefit people in certain controlled contexts, but there are risks in using it indiscriminately."

References

Shiu F. Wong, Christopher Cardoso, Mark A. Orlando, Christopher A. Brown, Mark A. Ellenbogen. "Depressive Symptoms and Social Context Modulate Oxytocin’s Effect on Negative Memory Recall." Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (First published: June 18, 2021) DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsab072

Christopher Cardoso, Mark A. Ellenbogen, Anne-Marie Linnen. "The Effect of Intranasal Oxytocin on Perceiving and Understanding Emotion on the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT)." Emotion (First published: January 21, 2014) DOI: 10.1037/a0034314

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